‘Sea Of Shadows’ Director Richard Ladkani On Evading Murderous Drug Cartels To Film An Endangered Whale

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Sea of Shadows doesn’t play out like a typical conservation documentary. Austrian director Richard Ladkani says he realized halfway through shooting that it was a thriller and tried to construct it that way, and it’s not much of a stretch to compare it to Sicario or Traffic. Think The Cove meets Sicario, to put it in Hollywood shorthand terms.

While Sea of Shadows is ostensibly about the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale and one of its most endangered species, with a population currently estimated at 15 or less, there are times in the film that the animals themselves are overshadowed by the sheer ballsiness of the filmmakers and some of the environmentalists and journalists trying to save them.

Lots of environmental activism is aspirational, examples of ways we could imagine ourselves making a difference if we were better, braver, more compassionate people. All I could think watching Sea of Shadows was, “Oh God I would never do this.”

It’s one thing to take on Japanese whaling ships (as the crew of the Sea Shepherd, featured prominently in Sea of Shadows and previously seen on Whale Wars so often do) or even ivory poachers (as in director Richard Ladkani’s previous film, The Ivory Game, for Netflix), but in Sea of Shadows, the main adversary is Mexican drug cartels. Who, as Ladkani puts it, “Don’t fuss around. They just kill you if they don’t like you.”

The cartels have turned sale of the swim bladder from the totoaba, the “cocaine of the sea” prized in China for its supposed medicinal properties, into a lucrative trade with Chinese brokers (a process during which the vaquita is merely an unintended bycatch). The cartels seem to have been able to buy protection at the highest levels of Mexican law enforcement and the military, and yet you have Ladkani and his crew trying to infiltrate their gangs just to get the word out, and Mexican journalist Carlos Loret de Mola going on Mexican TV with his face uncovered in an attempt to do same. This is in the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists. It’s a level of commitment that’s admirable even as its mystifying.

Another aspect that elevates Sea of Shadows as a film (which won an audience award for best documentary at Sundance, along with a handful of other festivals) is that Ladkani doesn’t soft-peddle what it takes to wage a fight like this and how hopeless it can feel. Especially when conservationists raise millions for a rescue effort that turns out to be a disaster, or when poorly executed conservation policy seems to achieve nothing but putting legal fisherman out of work and sour the public on environmentalists. To Ladkani though, that’s just part of the challenge for a fight that’s worth waging. It’s one he’s still fighting.

With Sea of Shadows opening in a handful of cities this past week (New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago), I spoke to Ladkani by phone.

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I’m impressed with your bravery in directing this movie. Did you feel like you were in danger as you were reporting it?

No, it was all easy, no problem. I’m just kidding. No, of course, this was the most dangerous film I’ve ever done. It was the first time we used bodyguards. I wasn’t just feeling for myself, but also for my crew. But on the other hand, we’re following these amazing heroes, like Andrea Crosta (executive director and co-founder of Earth League International), Jack Hutton (Sea Shepherd drone pilot), and Carlos Loret de Mola (Mexican journalist) and they are doing this every day. I was thinking, if they’re down there and risking so much, we should be okay.

But overall, it was very tense at times and especially towards the end. The cartel found out we were there and our cover was blown. We went in as wildlife filmmakers. They thought we were like the Discovery Channel or something. But as soon as they found out, towards the end of it that we were actually digging deep, talking to people, meeting people undercover, it got very dangerous and we had to abort the shoot and just get out of there.

Besides bodyguards, what were some of the additional precautions?

Well, we did a hostile environment training before we went there, which includes what to do in case you get kidnapped and how to avoid that. What do you do in case you get under attack or you hear gunshots — some training that is very typical for war journalists. My crew, we’ve been through a lot together already. We’ve been working together for 10 years. We did The Ivory Game together, which was also very dangerous. Not as dangerous as this one because the drug cartels in Mexico are just the worst. They don’t fuss around, they will just kill you if they don’t like you. Whereas in Africa it was a very big deal to kill a white person. The threshold was a bit higher for them. Not in Mexico. They will kidnap you or do something to you and people will never find you.

We took it day by day and kept evaluating the situation. We also had informants with the villages around us, people that were friendly, that kept feeding us information on what the mood is, what the talk of town is, if people are getting annoyed or wary or if there were weird people showing up with guns.

You’re working with fixers, you’re doing investigative work, there’s so much logistical planning and security planning that you’re doing that seems like it’s so much more than just artistic concerns when you’re making a movie like this. What is your background as a filmmaker and how did you get into this particular line of filmmaking?

Well, I actually started as a photographer and the photography that I was doing was journalistic style anyway. I would travel the world. That was 25 years ago. While I was traveling the world and looking for interesting adventure stories, already back then, I traveled through the Andes and I traveled into Golden Triangle of Burma and Laos and tried to meet with rebels. One of my earliest films in 2000 was called Escape Over the Himalayas, where I filmed a group of Tibetan refugees escaping from Tibet over the Himalayas to live and be with the Dalai Lama.

All these things that I did already early on were somewhat dangerous. I was somehow always drawn to difficult topics. Topics that are somewhat adventurous but also that are important in terms of what’s happening with our planet. It kind of accelerated when I met Jane Goodall ten years ago, because I was able to spend a year with her of filming the documentary Jane’s Journey and she was the one that put it in my head. She says, look, you have the power to make films. Films can reach millions of people. Those films amplify a message and you can actually reach the world and change it.

Can you back up a little and explain how totoaba fishing endangers the vaquita and what those two creatures are?

Yes, of course. The totoabas are giant seabass that only exist in the upper Gulf of California. The reason the Chinese want it is because they believe that its swim bladder has some magical powers and it can heal ailments of all kinds, especially for pregnant women or joint problems. The collagen I think it’s called an English, is what they seek and it’s the biggest swim bladder in the world. They actually fished to extinction their own seabass called the bahaba about ten years ago. They went looking for a replacement and found it in Mexico, 8,000 miles away. They then started to conspire with the drug cartels and then formed an alliance to attack the Sea of Cortez and to just get as many totoabas out as possible.

Don’t be mistaken, they’re not interested in the fish. They’re only interested in the swim bladder. They even cut out the swim bladder at sea, throw back the fish itself, to rot. That swim bladder can fetch up to a hundred thousand dollars on the black market. They way they fish it is they drop thousands of nets into the water. They’re like walls of death anchored to the ocean floor that kill everything. They don’t just kill the totoaba, they kill whales and sharks and dolphins and sea lions and turtles.

The smallest whale on earth, the vaquita, happens to live only in that place, and right now it’s going extinct. There are less than 15 animals left on the planet. It’s happening because of those gill nets that they put in to catch the totoaba. It’s basically a bycatch, unintended. They have no use for the vaquita. But that’s how this whole businesses is working and that’s why it’s so urgent for us to pay attention because they’re killing an ocean.

Sea Shepherd's Jack Hutton with dead totoaba
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Would it be possible to just farm the totoaba?

It’s possible to farm it and they have been doing some research on it and so forth. But it’s not going to save the vaquita because the totoabas that the Chinese love are 25 to 30 years old. If you start farming totoaba now in offshore sea pen, which is already done in specific areas further down south — it’s still just for research, it’s not done commercially yet — but even if you do that, it will take about at least 15 years, even if you give them a lot of proteins and vitamins and all these things, before the totoaba grows to a size that may be interesting for the Chinese consumer.

With less than 15 animals left, the vaquita will probably go extinct within the next 12 to 24 months. So farming is an option, but it’s not the solution right now. Some of the Chinese are actually not interested in farm totoaba because they say they want the wild thing. A farm totoaba will never have the same powers, they say.

What about flooding the market with counterfeit totoaba bladders to affect the market price?

No, it’s not an option. First of all, you can’t really fake it. The swim bladder of the totoaba is so unique because it has these two tentacles that come down left and right side that are the signature of the totoaba swim bladder. And I mean you can’t create something out of plastic.

The number one solution, if you’re looking for solutions, would be to target the Chinese traffickers out of Tijuana and Mexicali who are enabling all this. They are the ones who are buying the totoaba from the cartel. They’re sitting in Tijuana. Nobody investigates them. They run restaurants and businesses and are very wealthy Chinese businessmen that see this as a great side hobby to make millions of dollars and also use it for money laundering. When you want to avoid being taxed, they actually use the money that you maybe got through some illegal whatever to buy totoaba. Then instead of sending the money back home to China, you send totoaba swim bladders back to China, which quadruple in value and here you have suddenly laundered your money. That’s what they do. They talk about it in the undercover footage that we got.

(Targeting them would be) easiest, and it would be a cheap operation. But immensely effective because if you scare these people then they will stop buying totoaba and then the whole market’s going to collapse.

I mean, it’s not the only solution. You’ve got to keep pulling those nets like the Sea Shepherd’s doing. Of course, you have to provide alternative fishing methods for the fishermen. These are fishermen that need to go out to fish and you can’t bar them and lock them up on land forever without a compensation program. There’s no money right now that they received. They’re basically locked on land, not allowed to fish in their own waters because there’s a fishing ban. This is an unsustainable situation. But if you immediately want to buy time (for the vaquita), go after the Chinese. That’s what I keep saying to everyone.

So are they seeing a full swim bladder in a store and then they’re getting it ground up on-site? Or…

No. They turn it into a soup. They boil it in water for hours until it turns into a glibbery mass of liquid that they then slurp up like a soup. That’s their way of consuming it. It’s also an investment for them. Many of the Chinese actually buy the totoaba and they’re betting on extinction. If the totoaba goes extinct — and it’s an endangered species, it’s listed on appendix one of endangered species by the UN by CITES, which is the official program. The less totoaba there are, the more the price rises. A lot of them buy the totoaba for let’s say $30,000 and then put it in a safety deposit box or whatever, lock it away. Then maybe in ten years it’s worth $300,000 because there’s no more totoaba around.

Is there any sense of shame? Are they aware that they’re putting a species into extinction or whatever?

I think that most of the people that consume it are probably unaware that it’s causing the extinction on the other side. I doubt that the traffickers tell them, you’re buying a product and that product is actually causing extinction on the other side of the planet. But on the other hand, I wonder if these people even care. I’ve never talked to someone who buys totoaba and uses it.

If you’re buying it as an investor, then you definitely know that it’s causing extinction and destruction because you know the trade, right? But if you buy it as a consumer, I think you’re buying it probably for the wrong reasons because you believe it has some super power and if you need that power, then you probably don’t care that it’s causing extinction on the other side of the planet. What you care about is your ailments, your problems, your health.

The only way to really stop it is if the Chinese government enforces the law, or even gets tougher on it. But they have actually stepped up their efforts. Earth League International handed over all their investigation to the Chinese government in June last year. In December all across China arrests started to happen and they arrested more than 30 totoaba traffickers between December and April. They really did crack down hard and we believe that it was also based on our information. They’re doing their part, much more so than the Mexican (government) because they haven’t done anything.

Going back to the vaquita, this was a species that hadn’t been filmed alive in its natural habitat before, is that right?

Exactly. We’re the first film crew in the world to ever film a living vaquita.

That seems like a pretty big challenge to have to face going into making a movie like this.

Yeah, no, it was. Look, this was a very risky endeavor from the very beginning. Before we even started, we’re contemplating should we do this film? I was very, very worried that we wouldn’t be able to film the vaquita. I was like, how am I going to emotionally connect my audience to an animal that they will never see? It was always a possibility but we went ahead anyway. The production company decided to take the financial risk. I took the risk as director. Worst-case scenario would’ve been, we never find a vaquita and there’s no story.

When they say there’s only 15 of these left in the wild, when the animal is so rare and so threatened, how do they make that kind of estimate?

What they have is they have underwater seedpods that listen in for any clicks that are unique to the vaquita. Those clicks give them an idea of how many there are. The other thing is visual identification. Last year, I think it was in October, someone actually saw six vaquitas — they were going out there to try to tag a vaquita. In that process they were out on the water for two weeks and they saw six vaquitas. The best estimate was, well there are definitely six vaquitas but the underwater clicks and sounds estimate them around 22 vaquitas. They all put their heads together and then decided, okay, less than 15 is the most scientifically correct number that they could come up with. But nobody knows for sure. There’ll be another count end of August, where they will go back and retrieve all the information from the seedpods and try to visually find them again. It’s a very important time for us. We need to stop the next killing season before it begins. The totoaba trade is a seasonal trade because totoaba comes into the area in December and leave again in June. When the next kill season begins, which is December, that’s when thousands of boats will be packed out. They will drop their nets. They will start killing everything. We believe that those less than 15 vaquitas are not going to survive the next killing season.

Our campaign is to stop that from happening and we want to be the movie that helps save the vaquita, because between now and then, the only thing that we have is that movie to move people into action. That’s why we also have this petition going. On change.org you can find it on seaofshadows.film, where we are demanding from the Mexican Minister of Environment to actually enforce the law, go after the Chinese, help the fishermen find alternative fishing gear solutions. We need that because otherwise, it’s all over.

‘Sea of Shadows’ is in theaters now. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.